Since 9/11, the wars on terror, economic crises, climate change, and humanitarian emergencies have led decision makers to institute new measures to maintain security. Foreign policy analysts tend to view these decisions as being divorced from ethics, but Unsettled Balance shows that arguments about rights, obligations, norms, and values have played a profound role in Canadian foreign policy and international relations.
Examining a wide range of events in Canada and abroad, the contributors to this volume collectively explore three key questions. What is the meaning of ethics and security, and how are they linked? To what extent have considerations of ethics and security changed in the twenty-first century? And what are the implications of a shifting historical context for Canada’s international relations?
Whether probing how Canada handles the tension between ethics and security when hosting large-scale international events, engaging in humanitarian aid initiatives, or entering into military operations, each chapter provides insight into key decisions in recent Canadian history. In a time of rapid change, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Canada responds to the challenges of an increasingly volatile world and why it responds the way it does.
After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another. However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy. The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth. The rise of the internet has not made it any easier. In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral. So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.
There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.
In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit. Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides. Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants: a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom. Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view. Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments. Here is another.
2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.
Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides. Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales. In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event. One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture. Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.
3. People and systems are distinct things.
Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it. Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing. People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.
4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.
Beware of the ad hominem argument. An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action. A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.
5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.
It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy. The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire. For example, some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible. Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”. Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause. Have anger, and have empathy.
6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happens when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference. Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.
7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.
Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information. Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.
8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions. Beware of manipulation.
The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke. Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.
9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources. Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.
Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting. They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.
10. Beware of appeals to authority.
Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie. People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable. However, they are also not infallible.
Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off. Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems. It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education! Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences. There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.
“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”
Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.
This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies. Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level. Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor. The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently). As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.
The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…
I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric. Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket]. But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool? It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.
I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society. What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group. For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.
Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests. A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset. Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another. This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty. If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.
Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].
Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!) In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract. That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.
Sometimes the language that we use as political scientists is regrettable in its implications. For example, the definition of ‘differentiated citizenship’ according to a leading introductory text to Canadian politics reads as follows: “The granting of special group-based legal or constitutional rights to national minorities and ethnic groups” (Mintz, Tossutti and Dunn 89). While accurate, the use of the term ‘special’ has many unintended implications. Who is ‘special’ and who is entitled to ‘different’ treatment by government?
For one thing, to say that a group or individual receives ‘special’ treatment is to imply that every other group is not special. Or, to put it another way, it is to imply that a group is singled out from the otherwise equal treatment that they might be entitled to receive by virtue of being equal members of the community. It assumes that the community at large includes other groups which may be equally entitled to special treatment were it not for the unique qualities which set the ‘special’ group apart. Equality before the law is both an operational concept and an aspirational standard.Using the term ‘special’ to describe a group singled out for differentiated treatment suggests that everyone else is already treated equally under the law, that equal legal treatment is in fact a reality, and not also an aspiration yet to be achieved. Under the assumption of equality, special treatment is, by definition, discriminatory. Discriminatory treatment technically only means the same as ‘special’ treatment, except for the fact that it implies a harmful result for the group being singled out. When the result of special treatment is discrimination, it is rightfully condemned. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity, for example, is condemned in a democracy not primarily because it constitutes special or differential treatment, but rather because of the negative effects of the judgments that tend to be made, most often based on involuntary or ascribed characteristics. The response to ‘special treatment’ is to question the basis for unequal treatment rather than to condemn all forms of harmful discrimination. Why the knee-jerk reaction to ‘special treatment’? After all, governments identify groups for a variety of special programs and services all the time. Groups are defined by age, income levels, geography, occupation, health status, and marital status. Many of these categories are based on involuntary characteristics, or at least, characteristics that are extremely difficult to change. Northerners or people who live in rural areas are entitled to unique job training or assistance for moving expenses. Fishers in the Maritimes are treated distinctly from other occupations with respect to qualification for EI benefits, young people are targeted for special job training and employment programs, and government services like healthcare are often offered in languages other than the two official languages. In truth, as discussed in the last two blog posts, equal treatment is as elusive as the abstraction of ‘equality’ itself. One is tempted sometimes to ‘test’ equality by imagining a ‘reverse onus’. In other words, we might try to test the extent of equality by asking ourselves how a given situation might be if the positions were reversed. If a black woman and a white woman are ranked equally on a college entrance application, then ‘all else being equal’, the chances of success should be equally distributed (50/50). If this is indeed true, then the white woman and black woman are being equally treated. In reality, we can more effectively test the presumption of equality by looking at outcomes. If an equal chance of success really does exist, then the number of black successful women should be roughly proportional to the number of black women in the population as a whole, and the same with the number of white women. Success is clearly not distributed proportionally among these racial groups. Because the outcomes do not support the idea that such equal treatment exists, it is unfair to apply the ‘reverse racism’ test. Treatment that might be appropriate for one group would not be appropriate for the privileged group. The two situations are not comparable. Discrimination can still be shown to exist, as the story of Yolanda Spivey reveals. Spivey, a black woman, reportedly modified her online job profile to appear ‘white’, changing her name and racial identification, but keeping all of her other information the same, including qualifications,
experience, and work history. She received many more employment enquiries as a white woman than as a black woman. The experiences of black and white people are not comparable, and so these groups should not be considered as if they were treated equally. Of course, more study and data is needed to determine the extent, nature, and form of discrimination in society. Nevertheless, differential treatment, and even differentiated citizenship, is justifiable in order to move toward equality of opportunity for all. Until equality can be demonstrated in outcomes, it should be seen as an aspirational goal, and not assumed to be already in place.
When analyzing any phenomena, it helps to have a good idea what we want to achieve. In political science as in life, equality has great significance. Analysts tend to think quite differently from the general public, however, about what constitutes equality and how we should use the term. Let’s consider a thought experiment to sort out the difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of condition’.
If we imagine that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are kinds of ideal types at opposite poles, with a spectrum of variations in between, then the picture might look something like this: under ‘equality of condition’ everyone would experience the same life outcomes: equal incomes, equal standards of living, and equal levels of education, health care, and work. How would things differ? Likely inequality would creep in through limited means: for example, some may work longer hours, have more or less education, spend more or less time skiing, etc.
What is wrong with this picture? The most common criticisms of this ‘absolute equality’ are:
It reduces the incentive to succeed, and 2. It distorts the value of things, leading to scarcities and gluts in supply.
But these are practical criticisms, not questions of justice. Would absolute equality actually be ‘just’? Assuming for the moment that such a system could be workable (and I’m not saying it is) then an argument could be made that it actually creates injustice by failing to differentiate among people with ascribed or inherent differences who deserve differential outcomes. Those who work harder or are more creative or who are disabled or ill should be treated differently. Some may deserve preferential access to resources either as a result of their extra effort, their accomplishment or contributions, or by virtue of need. Tellingly, the right more often argues for differential outcomes based on effort and accomplishment, while ‘need’ tends to take second place. It is sometimes said that such a system would be communistic. However, under Marx’s vision of communism, the ideal form of equality actually allowed for differential rewards focusing on need rather than accomplishment or contribution. Contrary to popular belief, Marx did not advocate absolute equality of condition. Indeed, nobody has, in all seriousness, ever really proposed that large-scale industrial societies impose absolute equality of condition. This is because serious thinkers would quickly realize that equality of condition, even in its ideal form, would inevitably raise both practical and fairness questions since there would still need to be some argument for different treatment of some people. Nobody is average.
Now, what about equality of opportunity? That sounds like something we can all get behind: everybody can try or fail equally well, and those with the greatest accomplishments and talents will rise to the top. This is kind of what Paul Summerville argues when he says:
Equality of opportunity is a virtue when it is twinned with unequal outcomes. It is meaningless without it. What is the point of equality opportunity if success is discouraged by custom, law, or taxation?
But, to respond to this, how can we be sure that everyone actually has an equal opportunity to try, and to win? Inequality all by itself is not evidence of equality of opportunity. What if the winners try to ‘kick the ladder out’ from behind them, blocking the upward advance of others? What if they use their newfound positions to favour their heirs and families and friends rather than allow their loved ones to fail? Perhaps when we see that some are able to climb up to the top from the very bottom of the social ladder without artificial assistance from the state, then we can say that equality of opportunity exists. But how many of these examples are sufficient to prove it? One? One in ten? One in a thousand? The fact is there is no natural or inevitable level of inequality that can tell us when everyone truly has an equal chance. We can point to clues: perhaps when the top 1% is as diverse and representative of the entire society, or when every member of the top group can claim to have climbed out of the gutter, but that seems as unlikely as the ideally equal society discussed above. The question of fairness rises again: even in a society in which opportunities are purely equally distributed, there will be unfairness due to the same factors mentioned above: What about those disadvantaged by illness or age or poor upbringing? What about highly talented or accomplished individuals who don’t manage to make it through no fault of their own? why value some talents more than others?
Again, the argument to treat some people differently in order for equality of opportunity to be realized is present. But, the same question arises: what should be the basis for differential treatment? Here, the differences between the two poles start to disappear: the essential argument is not about equality at all, but about the basis and rationale for differences. Both sides work toward an ideal world that is impractical and unfair, yet both sides argue for ‘differential’ treatment on the basis of different individual characteristics. The right argues that differential treatment should be based on talents or contributions, while the left focuses on compensating for special needs and other (class) disadvantages.
The world we actually live in is of course far more complicated. Equality before the law, which is the dominant discourse of equality in Canada and other Western liberal democracies, is actually a fall-back position avoiding both of the options described above. It doesn’t guarantee equality of opportunity and it doesn’t mitigate inequalities of condition. At most, it provides a measure of our progress toward some compromise on fairness and practicality. It’s not irrelevant, far from it! The legal guarantees of the Voting Rights Act or protections for gay marriage or for equality between religious beliefs do matter, but not for the reasons we think. They matter less because they create equal opportunities, and more because they clarify the legitimate grounds for treating people differently. The fact that people are all, in some way, treated differently by society still needs to be acknowledged by all participants in the equality debate.
The next two blog posts will address the sources of present-day inequality in globalization, and the basis for differential treatment and its centrality to equality.
In Egypt this past summer, former president Hosni Mubarak and former interior minister Habib El-Adly were sentenced to life in prison for complicity in the murder and attempted murder of protesters in the 2011 uprising that removed Mubarak from power. In Liberia, Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 50 years for aiding Sierra Leonean rebels who raped, maimed, and murdered tens of thousands of civilians (Harper’s Weekly Review June 4th, 2012). In March 2012, the International Criminal Court delivered a guilty verdict against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who was found guilty of the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between September 2002 and August 2003. At present, the ICC has publicly indicted 30 people, and has proceedings ongoing against 24, including against the top five members of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, including Joseph Kony, for similar crimes.
With human rights increasingly in the news, and the activities of multilateral agencies like the ICC at the forefront, it seems that two distinct pathways to criminal justice for egregious violators of human rights are now becoming evident. In the first pathway, former heads of state are held to account using the bodies of law of the country they once led. Under this pathway, the process can yield successes (as in the case of Mubarak) but it also has flaws. Judges appointed by the former leader may be reluctant to apply the rule of law, or, alternatively, too severe outcomes can actually undermine the rule of law by placing the whole process under suspicion. This is especially true if the society has a history of sectarian violence. In the latter case, for example, I’m thinking of the sham trial of Saddam Hussein following the US invasion of Iraq, which probably set back the rule of law in that country by decades and opened the door to a vicious sectarian war. It should be noted that until recently, with the establishment of the ICC as a legal body, national prosecution of such cases was, essentially, the only available route to justice.
The ICC was established to fill a gap in international human rights law that addressed some of these flaws. The gap lay between the politics of sovereignty and the universal laws of human rights. But the ICC was to be derivative of sovereign law, a supplement, and decidedly not a force for subversion or displacement of national bodies of law. Far from it. International law steps in where national law and politics fail, but fail first they must. It is through this pattern of repeated failure that the full justification and realization of the importance of the ICC to the system of sovereign law will emerge. For this reason, it is entirely wrong to criticize the ICC as toothless or helpless in the face of national power. It also entirely wrong to criticize the ICC for overstepping sovereignty The body of law upon which the ICC draws is the logical and reasonable outgrowth of sovereign law itself. For this reason, every case brought to justice by the ICC strengthens, not weakens, the force of sovereign law to protect human rights and bring violators to justice. Even though there are two pathways to justice, they are heading in the same direction, towards a world where violators will have nowhere to hide with impunity.
Looking back at the historical development of human rights, one could easily point out the depressing record of genocide, oppression, discrimination, violence and hatred that has characterized the world. One can paint a similar picture with respect to the environmental record: every graph and equation seems to show a decline in biodiversity, environmental quality, and in prospects for a sustainable future.
However, recent events suggest that pessimism on human rights may be misplaced. If we look at the big picture, we might start to see that there are some lessons for environmental activists in the history of human rights. For example, it was once accepted as natural or inevitable that military campaigns necessitate mass bombing of civilian targets, that violent regimes would persist beyond the ability of the international community to act or even to comment on them, and that individual despots were beyond the reach of justice, likely to spend their retirement years in obscure luxury.
All of these assumptions are now, if not gone, severely strained. The fight for human rights continues throughout the world, individual people have shown over and over that there are limits to their toleration of oppression. Similarly, environmentalists might consider harnessing frustrations that are emerging around the world, in order to change international environmental norms in fundamental ways. Here are my suggestions:
1. Work from the inside out
With global environmental initiatives stalled, local action will become more important than ever. The fundamental barrier to progress on climate change has always arisen from the tensions between countries at differing levels of economic development. As with human rights, differences between countries historically stood in the way of new legal instruments to structure international norms. In the case of the UN Universal Declaration, Cold War differences stalled the development of the two major Protocols for decades after the 1948 effort. Given these differences, beginning work on the ground, and working within the norms, rules and procedures that operate locally will have greater effect on the international process than starting at the top.
2. Use moral and ethical arguments
Environmentalists have sometimes shied away from appealing to ethical arguments, preferring to couch the case for environmental sustainability in the stale language of self-interest and economics. This strategy should now be abandoned, as it guts the vision and content that is needed to inspire change. Systems change in response to fundamental cultural and normative shifts, not to instrumental rationalist appeals to individual gain. Human rights have made strides because of the universal power of the ethical arguments for human dignity. Everyone can relate to the struggles of others, and this is why the suppression of rights and freedoms (including rights to economic opportunities) has inspired resistance all across the world, from Tunisia to Britain to Libya.
3. Appeal to states & peoples, not to governments
Governments, whether democratic or not, are ill-equipped to deal with ecosystem breakdowns. Governments in democratic countries are focused on electoral cycles and polls. Governments of non-democratic countries are focused on keeping power. Although it may sound like heresy in some circles, states (in the sense of political institutions and communities that sustain a common identity and legal personality over the long term) are better equipped to deal with these problems than individual governments. Human rights language has always transcended governments, and human rights activists have always used government statements and commitments against them, entangling them in commitments that end up constraining them in ways that never could have been predicted.
4. Think long term
Human rights struggles continue, but progress should be acknowledged and recognized. The institution of slavery, which had existed in various forms for millennia, has now virtually been abolished, and any group who practices it now does so in the shadows, surreptitiously and shamefully. It could be argued that the planet can’t wait, and I agree with this sentiment, however, it is short-termism that has gotten us into this situation of ecological crisis, and changing the view to a planetary one should also involve a shift in thinking beyond the 20-year window that presently hampers societies.
5. Quiet efforts pay off
After Live Earth (Al Gore’s massive public relations global conference event) in 2007, interest in addressing climate change seemed to fade away. Big, splashy events are temporary, they ignite but lack the ‘long tail’ needed to create sustained change. The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia with the actions of one individual, seemed to come out of nowhere. Closer examination, however, reveals that the work of thousands of activists, journalists, and ordinary people created the conditions for change that enabled the revolutionary movements to transnationalize quickly. Contrasting these two examples also reveals the key role of information technology. Live Earth was primarily a visual and broadcast-style ‘industrial’ event, while change now happens through microblogs and ‘post-industrial’ social media. These efforts are necessarily more dispersed, less hierarchical, and less predictable, but clearly they are potent.
None of this is to say that torture, oppression, and genocide are (or perhaps ever will be) eliminated. The reports out of Syria and other places like Sri Lanka, Somalia, Congo, and Colombia suggest that there is a long way to go to achieve respect for fundamental human rights, freedom, and dignity. Nevertheless, environmentalists should take heed.